Babe Ruth was hammering the final stamp onto one of baseball’s most remarkable seasons but hardly anyone was paying attention.
The newspaper headlines on September 29, 1920, trumpeted the indictment of eight Chicago White Sox players on charges of conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. Even in the New York Times the scandal was on the front page while the only hint of what the Yankees were up to was a small note in agate at the bottom of the standings: “New York at Philadelphia (2 Games).” It was one of the few times the Babe took second billing.
It didn’t help that the doubleheader was meaningless as far as the AL race went. After purchasing Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in December, the already ascendant Yankees appeared to have added the missing piece that finally would put them over the top. “Given anything like an even break, the Yankees should win the American League pennant this season,” predicted Weed Dickinson in the Washington Post. “[N]o alibi will satisfy New York fans if the Yanks do not come through.”1 Ruth’s new teammates Del Pratt and Bob Shawkey boldly declared that they, too, saw an AL flag in the Yankees’ immediate future.
Things didn’t work out, although that certainly wasn’t Ruth’s fault. He entered the day with a nearly incomprehensible total of 53 home runs. He broke his own single-season record of 29, set the previous season, on July 19. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the rest of the offense was undistinguished and, ultimately, not quite good enough. Arriving at Shibe Park for these final two games of the season, New York found itself in third place, 3½ games behind Cleveland and mathematically eliminated from contention.
It seemed as if the Athletics had been mathematically eliminated since February. They hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1914 and wouldn’t again until 1925. Most of those years in the wilderness were ugly ones and this was no exception: They came into the day 47-101, 47½ games out of first. Their pitchers had nothing to be ashamed of. Philadelphia’s team ERA was a tick above the league average and although Ruth destroyed everyone in 1920, the Athletics sort of held him in check, relatively speaking. He hit fewer home runs against them —five —than against any other team.
So, the pitching was fine. The problem was everything else. The Athletics were the worst defensive team in baseball, by far —as evinced by the eight errors they committed in this doubleheader. Their inability to catch the ball was matched by their hapless attempts to hit it. Philadelphia’s team OPS of .641 was more than 50 points lower than anyone else in the American League. It was one of the weakest offenses the major leagues have ever seen.
The Philadelphia Inquirer estimated that 15,000 people were on hand for the doubleheader. Baseball-Reference.com lists the attendance at 7,000. Either way, the Athletics averaged fewer than 4,000 a game that season, so it appears that the chance to witness the spectacle that was Babe Ruth drew a lot of fans who normally would have spent their Wednesday afternoon in the office or at their workbench.
They watched the home team break on top in the first inning against the Yankees’ outstanding rookie, Rip Collins. With one down, Charlie High tripled and later scored on Cy Perkins’ single, but New York answered moments later when Sammy Vick’s two-out triple plated Pratt to make it 1-1. The Athletics recaptured the lead in the bottom of the second on Jimmy Dykes’ single to center, which knocked in Tillie Walker. Philadelphia had a chance for a big inning after High’s infield hit loaded the bases but Collins struck out Ivy Griffin and retired Perkins on a grounder to snuff out the threat.
Leads were all too few for the Athletics in 1920 and “they hung on to that slim lead like grim death,” as the New York Times put it.2 But Philadelphia hadn’t lost 101 games by accident. It was almost inevitable they would lose their grip —and so they did in the fifth.
Speedy Bob Meusel sparked the rally by legging out a squibber between short and third. He was erased at second on a force play before Truck Hannah, playing in his final major-league game, slapped one to second baseman Dykes, who booted it. After Collins struck out, Aaron Ward lashed Slim Harriss’s offering for a single, which scored Vick and tied the game, 2-2. Wally Pipp reached on another error, which gave Ruth a shot with the bases loaded but Harriss struck him out to end the inning.
The game got away from Philadelphia in the top of the sixth. The trouble started right away when shortstop Chick Galloway threw wildly to first on Pratt’s groundball. The Yankees took the lead on run-scoring singles by Meusel and Hannah and added insurance when Vick stole home on the front end of a double steal. Harriss exited for a pinch-hitter moments later, down 5-2, although three of the runs charged to him were unearned. A writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer was beside himself at how Harriss’s teammates had done him wrong. “Five errors of commission were committed by our infielders, while several other examples of slow fielding, particularly on the part of … Galloway, were scored as base hits when anything approximately a big league brand of ball would have retired the batsmen and saved two or three of the alien tallies.”3
Walker, who finished third in the AL in home runs with 17, led off the Athletics’ eighth with a solo shot to cut the lead to 5-3. In the ninth, Ruth brought an 0-for-4 to the plate with two outs and Ward at first following another error. He faced reliever Dave Keefe. Keefe had only four fingers on his pitching hand thanks to a childhood confrontation with a corn crusher, but for whatever inconvenience the injury caused him in daily life, it did help him develop a pretty nasty forkball that got him to the big leagues. That was of no consequence to Ruth, who drove Keefe’s first pitch over the right-field wall for his 54th home run of the season and a 7-3 Yankees lead, which is how the game ended after Collins retired the side in the bottom of the ninth.
According to the Inquirer, a pedestrian returned the home-run ball to an Athletics employee, who gave it to Ruth, who planned to autograph it and sell it at an auction to benefit St. Mary’s Industrial Home for Boys in Baltimore, the orphanage where he was raised. St. Mary’s had suffered a devastating fire the previous year and the funds were intended to help with the reconstruction efforts.
(Ruth and Keefe crossed paths again with quite different results during a wartime fundraising effort at Shibe Park in 1944. Keefe was the Athletics’ batting-practice pitcher and his job was to groove a few pitches so that Ruth, nine years into his retirement, could blast them over the fence and delight the crowd. Instead, Keefe was so wild that Ruth hardly could make any contact at all. He tweaked his knee lunging after one of Keefe’s off-target pitches and hobbled back to the dugout homerless.)4
The Yankees won the second game, 9-4. Ruth didn’t homer but did go 3-for-5 with a double to cap what was possibly his greatest statistical season. He ended with a batting average of .376 and 135 RBIs to go with his 54 home runs. He had more home runs than all but one other major-league team. His slugging percentage of .847 and OPS of 1.379 were major-league records until Barry Bonds came along more than 80 years later.
That still wasn’t enough for some skeptics. A commentator in The Sporting News suggested that Ruth’s magnificent season might be a fluke. “Whether Ruth can equal this mark in 1921 is a doubtful question,” the writer warned. “His great hitting will no longer be a novelty.”5 Indeed, Ruth did not match his 54-homer outburst in 1921 —instead, he hit 59. That was a precursor to his 60 home runs during the Yankees’ mythical 1927 season.
The year turned out to be somewhat disappointing for New York. Nevertheless, the predictions of the previous winter soon came true. Beyond the horizon lay seven pennants and four world championships over the next 12 years of Ruth’s reign. The journey had begun.
In addition to the newspaper sources cited in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
The author also reviewed the following newspaper articles for play-by-play and other information:
“Double Victory Won by Yankees,” New York Herald, September 30, 1920: 13.
“Yankees Will Win Flag With Ruth, Says Pratt,” Washington Post, February 9, 1920: 9.
“Yanks Buy Babe Ruth for $125,000,” New York Times, January 6, 1920: 16.
1 Weed Dickinson, “Yanks’ Strength in New Material,” Washington Post, March 16, 1920: 12.
2 “Yankees Wind Up by Winning Two,” New York Times, September 30, 1920: 20.
3 Jim Nasium, “Another Home Run on Last Day of Year,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1920: 14.
5 “Men on the Inside Knew It Would Come Out,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1920: 1.